What began as a one-time environmental program for a local school has blossomed into a multi-year project. In early 2010, Laurie Barrett, who teaches gifted 5th & 6th grade students at Radney School in Alexander City, asked Dick and Mary Ann Bronson if volunteers from Lake Watch of Lake Martin could visit her classroom and provide a program about water quality.  During the initial visit, it was quickly determined that there was ample opportunity for an expanded environmental education program, and the wheels began turning.

To start with, Lake Watch wanted to focus on water quality and future issues facing Lake Martin. But they also wanted to broaden the program’s scope to “The World Around Us” by using a variety of presentations by folks from Auburn University, particularly Alabama Water Watch.

The project began September 2010 and will continue through May 2011.  Lake Watch volunteers, and now staff members from Alabama Water Watch (AWW), visit the school two days every month.  Thursdays are for morning and afternoon groups of 5th-graders, and Fridays are for two similar 6th-grade groups.  The high point of each session is a hike along a stream behind the school that goes to the Alexander City SportPlex and ultimately flows into Lake Martin.  The students named the stream “Barrett Creek” after their teacher.

The first program began with a general discussion of watersheds and the three AWW water testing procedures,  Water Chemistry (LaMotte test kit), Bacteriological Monitoring (Coliscan Easygel method), and Stream Biomonitoring (or Living Streams; go to www.alabamawaterwatch for more information on test procedures and training opportunities). 

Students collected water samples from Barrett Creek for chemical and bacterial testing.  They obtained a water sample upstream where debris was frequently found and downstream near the waterwheel at the Alexander City Sportplex They also searched for macroinvertebrates and, based on their findings, determined that the stream is impaired. Upstream high levels of manganese were found (from tests done at the Auburn University Soils Lab) but downstream the levels were in the normal range.  Students learned that nature can take care of itself by naturally filtering the water and assimilating pollutants. 

During the fall season the students expanded their knowledge of AWW techniques.  They learned about bacteria by testing water samples taken from school commodes and restroom surfaces.  A homemade incubator was placed in the classroom for their use.  Students placed water drawn from a dropper into a special Petri dish.  Twenty four hours later, they could see a series of blue dots (colonies) indicating the presence of bacteria.  Red dots indicated that E. coli were present.  And needless to say, they found E. coli bacteria…especially from commodes that had not been properly flushed.  Students also learned how to calculate the number of bacteria colonies that were present in the water samples. 

They learned about pH and other chemical parameters from Lake Watch board member Tom Lynch, a retired chemist who used spiked water samples to enhance the learning process.  .  Students were given color-coded charts going from pH equal to zero (battery acid, represented as red) to pH equal to14 (lye, represented as blue).   Students discovered that bleach, ammonia, and lemon juice had been added to water based on results of their pH tests of various spiked samples. 

The January 2011 session had Sergio Ruiz and Mona Scruggs teaching more about watersheds using the EnviroScape terrain model and colored water samples to show how erosion and polluted stormwater runoff affect waterbodies.  Students learned that our Tallapoosa Watershed begins in Georgia and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  They also learned that watersheds come in lots of different sizes by comparing them to a series of different mixing bowls inside one another.  This was a great visual that helped students understand how one watershed drains into a larger one, as streams and rivers make their way to the sea. 

Click here for more pictures of the Enviroscape program

In February Bill Deutsch and Sergio took the students on a trip around the world using hats they had collected during their travels for Global Water Watch.  Student “models” wore selected hats while others tried to guess which countries were represented.  Students were able to see first-hand how people deal with water issues.  In areas of extreme drought, villagers harvest the water from their roofs into tanks safely, as long as they keep their roofs clean. 

Click here for more pictures of the ‘World Hats’ program

Students then made a direct connection to the pond built this year at the school as a water harvesting system that is fed from a 300-gallon-tank rooftop catchment system.  They could understand, on a small scale, what it is like to not have enough water from the tank to fully maintain their pond during drought conditions.  They found it hard to believe that some people’s livelihoods depended on how much water they can collect.  Then a discussion took place about water quality and quantity problems in each of these countries.  The kids not only got a valuable perspective on water around the world but a wonderful geography lesson as well.

March will bring refresher sessions by Lake Watch volunteers on the three AWW testing protocols, to be followed in April by AWW Lab Chief Wendy Seesock talking about algae using a projection microscope. The program will culminate in May when the students get the full Living Streams experience at Elkahatchee Creek, a stream known for high water quality.  Students will discover what types of macroinvertebrates are found in a stream with high water quality, compared to Barrett Creek, where virtually none were found.

So what began as a modest class request has turned into a full-blown environmental education project that couples a local AWW group and Auburn University staffers with a local school.  It is estimated that by the May program, Lake Watch volunteers and AWW staff will have provided about 140 contact hours to the Radney School project.  Fifty gifted students’ lives have been changed forever because of their dedication and generosity. 

Which invites the question – how does one gauge the impact of such a program on young minds? Let’s ask the kids for their thoughts on the program thus far:

Program #1: Sergio the Fantastic and Mona the Magnificent

Water Watch has taught us a lot of things like water all over the world and watersheds in Alabama.  Mr. Sergio and Ms. Mona came and told us about the 11 main watersheds in Alabama. They also brought an Enviroscape and talked about direct and indirect pollution from buildings, cars, tractors and houses.  When it rains, it carries all of the pollution into the lakes.  The AWW team has taught everyone here a lot about the water and how we can take care of it.  We love for them to come and I can’t wait until the next time they come!

Michael McGill, 6th grade student

Program #2: Learning About the World with Hats

Our time with the AWW has been great!  My favorite time was when Mr. Sergio & Dr. Deutsch came and presented a power point about where they had gone and done water testing.  Some of the places were:  the Philippines, Peru, Brazil and Alabama.  Dr. Deutsch and Mr. Sergio brought hats from around the world.  I got to wear a hat from Ecuador.  You can always remember Ecuador is by the equator because they sound alike.  It was very fun! 

Savannah Bush, 6th grade student


This anecdote may also help provide an answer. One of the students, a girl in 5th grade, had an exciting announcement for Mary Ann. She said that she hoped to get a LaMotte water test kit for Christmas!

As for the future, Lake Watch has committed to another school year of environmental education for the Radney 5th & 6th grade gifted students for 2011-12.  A modest grant will again be provided by Lake Watch to cover travel expenses for AWW staff members. And who knows where this might go – possible creation of a new AWW endeavor such as ‘Junior Water Watchers’?  Stay tuned.